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this week on "the communicators," a discussion on how the internet is being used to provide transparency in the workings of government. our guest is ellen miller of the sunlight foundation. >> ellen miller is directing of sunlight and is the guest this week on "the communicators" to talk about politics money and technology. producer of the communicators is joining in the questioning this week. ms. miller if you could start by telling about the sunlight foundation is and what it does. >> it is a 3-year-old nonprofit non-partisan institution that was designed to create greater transparency for the work of the u.s. government using the technology so the internet and of technologies underlying are at the heart of everything we do and we are interested in
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transparency particularly data and information about government and using the technology to put it in the head of citizens where it belongs. >> and how do you use the technology and what kind of technology to use? >> we use several pieces. one as the sort of core of our work is making sure that information produced and about the u.s. congress and exit of privilege and the regulatory agencies is available online in a 24/7 fashion the way we expect to find any information these days. and so the first thing some licet out to do is digitize information that was only available in paper form. so, we created a number of grants to organizations like open secrets, finance information, lobbying and formation, a revolving door information or digitize personal financial disclosure forms. so, that, getting the
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information and if the date on line was out for first goal and then developing tools on top with eight so that any citizen could understand sometimes or somewhat more complicated fashion exactly what was and disinformation so we created by sites like where tens of thousands of people go to get information about pieces of legislation brought interpreted information, but actually text of bills and where they are allowed to comment on legislation and see what other people are writing about legislation and indeed even write their legislatures about information so we have created databases and tools and web sites on top of that to enable anybody, public, a journalist, bloggers, citizen journalists, to have access to information about what is going on. >> and i want to come back to opencongress but also ask is disinformation longline by departments and the federal government or con chris?
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>> it's a mixed bag. some information you can only find in the basement of an obscure or perhaps not so obscure government agency or office of the u.s. congress and it's just in paper form and unless you live in washington or have a high price hobbyist you can't get access to that so some of that we actually give grants to have digitized. but other information is available but you have to be the most intricate of researchers to find it on line and then sometimes it's available online in a fixed pds to form so you can't create a database and look for the similarities, look for who might be the highest-paid lobbyist or whose -- what government, for in government for example might be spending the most money on hiring lobbyists said the idea is to bring it to get there and make it digestible and available online where citizens today get their information. >> can you get an exit of how that works? a policy, something about
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government people want to find out about that and a sense wouldn't be able to find out through their own research? sample we are releasing next week has to do with foreign lobbyists, that is to say americans to lobby on behalf of foreign governments and so we have created a database with an investigative nonprofit which would allow citizens to take a database to fix this on paper in the basement of the justice department. we need an actual data base and allow citizens, journalists, researchers to search through country by country or legislator by legislator who was lobbied by these lobbyists. you could actually look by lobbyist as well so it puts a wealth of information about how our laws get made. another, and another example were sort of simple example is we took the congressional record which is actually available online, congressional record
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every single day has as many worms to beat the words as the tale of two cities, who is going to read that? we created a website called capitolwords. you say what was the most popular word of the day yesterday and you can actually tell what, chris was talking about yesterday and you can search that by the religious leader, the obligation, is a very interesting insight for citizens to understand what was congress talking about yesterday. >> to follow-up on that quickly what is meta data tagging? >> that is a very sophisticated way of looking -- we met data about data so we sound somewhat esoteric but the issue for data is how do you know what you're looking for, how can you find when you were looking for. so if i want all data for
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campaign finance that would be met the data but if i want data about the campaign finance contributions to this member of congress you can dig deep into a single database. so miers' trying to create collections of data mashing data together so that you can have a bigger picture of the data and what its impact might be. >> what process does your organization go through to make sure this information is presented as it is and not interpreted like you talked about at the beginning? >> dever ase status of organizations that we mostly fund to create data have longstanding reputations in taking the debt that comes out of government and then putting that into searchable data formats and now pleading with date at all, not interpreting the data at all so whether this open op run by omb
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watch this is just the facts. it is just the data. there is no interpretation on this data so on the database we create ourselves as we have a database we created is a small one but no one has ever done it before called party time and this has to do with the fund raising evens members of congress hold to raise money for their campaigns. we take the invitations themselves that we receive from all kind of source is all around the city and we have an interface created so that we can enter the data ourselves into it and then put the original invitation up on line. so if everyone ever doubts the database information they can actually go back and look at the original invitation and the value of this is invitations for fund raising kind of defense are sponsored by certain lobbyists so in this database you can search by which lobbyists actually sponsored most of these fund-raisers and do they have
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connections or do they represent interest that have connections to the committees on which members said. so you get a richness of data when you could be some of these databases and so the original documents as well as the data themselves. spinnaker people interested in from the trafficking sea going into the site? >> at the moment in terms of political party time or across the network -- >> schenectady is health care of course so yesterday tens of thousands of people went to we know there is a lot of disinformation and it's hard for anybody to tell what is true so open congress has the bill that is the most of these vehicles at the moment -- >> h.r. 3200. >> if people are looking for information and they go to google and typing h.r. 3200 the first thing that pops up is a link to they can go to that bill and see all thousand pages and comment
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on this bill. and so it gives an opportunity for people to actually take in and see whether they can find some of these kind allegations made about what is in this bill and what is not in this bill. >> just to follow up, can they searched the word death panel and that's one of the issues? >> they absolutely can look for the word that panel and i don't believe. but i think the opportunity for citizens to get the facts themselves, this is what the new technology offers. this is the connected age. we don't any longer need expert filters because each of us in our awaken gather the information and become our own lobbyist and not only that. the new technology, of the technologies we use like twitter, the messaging service, members of congress are on twitter, tens of millions of americans are on directors and you can go to open congress, get the facts, find your plater account for members of congress,
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and ask them a direct question and i that they will respond because it is that kind of personal mediums of the technology enables us to not only get information into the hands of citizens without filters without spin or analysis but also enables citizens to ask questions directly and be in direct one-on-one conversation with their lawmakers or elective officials. >> ellen miller you mentioned you typed in h.r. 3200 this is the first one that pops up on googled. do you have to pay for that? >> no, no, not at all. >> why is it the first one then? >> the popularity of the use, the algorithms i understand google uses or search engines generally have to do with where traffic is flowing and they pick up on that and in view royce and ranked according to the search engine. >> what if someone wanted to search health lobbyists and members of congress and compare that and see who is supporting it for 3200 or opposed to it?
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>> i don't know what they would find but they could go -- they could end up on a site called open secrets that has a database and type in the words health care lobbyist and find information on health care lobbyist and it could end up on another side they have funded called that is an involuntary facebook for the powerful and this is a wiki site people are focusing on revolving door lobbyists and the health care industry so people are doing their own research, adding information to this wiki and people who used to work for members of congress and are now currently health care lobbyists. so this is another side of what technology allows you to do is to pull this wisdom of the crowd to enlarge your staff or information sources.
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i don't know who is contributing on this website but let's assume for the moment it is of third members of congress or other staff saying so and so used to work for such and such office and providing that kind of information so, you know, there are lots of sources of information with the search engines do is direct you in different directions. >> a much traffic have you seen from the start? >> traffic has surged. every time there's a popular bill traffic surges dramatically on open, people are treating their own accounts so they can receive alerts about particular pieces of legislation. they might be interested in following and they can find other people interested in issues. so last year's biggest deal was about the unemployment insurance so people went looking for information about unemployment insurance in the up on open, chris, left their comments about the bill and what they thought about the bill and it's the other interesting it is counter
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into it if it is all quite civil. it seems like it is more subtle than what is going on in the town hall meetings right now and there is a certain level of collaboration and interest in sharing knowledge and information that the technologies sort out and able people to have civil dialogue. >> you can have boards people post one opinion or another and what they're reading are finding out information about? >> absolutely. they are of course, it is a very simple, and system of open congress that allows people to comment what they think about particular sections of the bill something, again using new technology we did this last year. someone asked us to create a bill about what government greater transparency what look like and so our lobbyist developed a piece of legislation that had new ideas but also gathered up very good ideas pending in congress in time and she put on my desk and said we wanted you to look through this
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and i said good news, i don't know anything about this area or that area and i said let's put on line and ask people if they will review this for us. and sedated. sweep of the section by section and allowed people to comment on it and it was an unbelievable and interesting experience. we learned a lot, and we engaged people that we never knew before in the process of developing legislation and we think that's a very promising in you. i'm not suggesting all legislation needs to be developed this way but the notion of having legislation online for a detailed look by citizens who are interested, you know, is something as an idea whose time has come into the technology enables it. we do, sunlight does have advocacy sight of what we do as well because well, we are in the business at the moment of creating databases out of government information and then
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providing tools to access that. it's not really the nonprofit responsibility to get this is government responsibility so we have an advocacy program to try to convince government whether it's the executive branch or the koln chris to put more information online themselves and so one of our platforms is something we call read the bill public consideration for 72 hours before it is considered. and we think that this will not only enable members of congress to read the legislation but for citizens to weigh in and tell members of congress what they might think about it. >> this is "the communicators" on c-span. our guest is ellen miller executive director and co-founder of the sunlight foundation. what is the business model of the sunlight foundation? >> sunlight was founded based on several large investors in at.
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the cofounder is a man, washington businessman and lawyer named michael klein and he approached me in the founding of sunlight and together his approach was what do we do to put the tools and information in the hands of journalists and citizens so they can understand more what is happening in congress and particularly the start with a focus exclusively on congress and we talked with many journalists and practitioners and then some longtime colleagues of mine from the personal democracy forum and new york and drew said there is an intersection happening between technology and political information and we need to understand that and grab hold of it and so we created some light and michael was the first investor to try to bring the political information and the technology together and we have been experimental since then.
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our largest funder is the network and they have given some light over our existence, $8 million we invested heavily in house. we receive either money as well we would have a contract with the pew charitable trust to build something called subsidies code, a huge database. first time anybody tried it of all government subsidies. information about subsidies that were interested in because it is a huge spending item. a huge amount of budget. no one has ever tried to put this information together in one single place and some subsidies, schogol, exists and we are building of any sector bisector the first sector is on the bank bailout money -- >> ase adamle? >> is online and you can actually search down to your local bank and find out whether your local bank has received money so this is a very exciting website. the next subsidy sector that will go up will be about transportation so all kinds of
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subsidies about transportation. so cute research center is a founder of ours. that might foundation has given a grant to build out tools and widgets for journalists to use the open society institute has provided money for training of journalists and we have more than a thousand databases on this last so the directive on day one or day two of the administration was a hugely important step because it planted a flag city and we want to be transparent and use technology to create this transparency and collaboration and citizen engagement and so that is a standard which we can hold of the administration efforts.
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i think another step a single website which will unfold over several years which will provide a catalog and access to all government aid. it will have all in one place he will be about search by the topic and interest you are interested in. two major steps forward. i would say transparency in terms of the white house operations, detailed daily schedule president and senior staff do. we haven't seen that and that would tell a lot what is going on but administration is using the new technology whether it is youtube which isn't so new or some of the interactive ways to dialogue with the president and press conferences. they are experimenting in that way and their experience is better than others but is certainly in terms of the administration's use of technology we are seeing a lot of that but we need to see it and more sort of genuine ways. i think there is the white house
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use of technology and then there is the message they send to the administration. there is no question at the top level of all the agencies and departments they understand technology is key in building trust in their work and they understand they want to do that but then there is a sort of cultural resistance beneath the top layer making it a slow road in terms of the fruition. >> culture resistance primarily by ho? >> i think it is a middle level bureaucrat. we see it on capitol hill as well who are not used to giving out this data. they think of it as their data and information and not for public consumption. that is the way it is. it's hard to understand why. was it thomas jefferson his information is power? and certainly members on capitol hill understand the power so they want to keep it close but
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what is happening is the barriers are falling down because citizens expect to be able to find what they want to find online 24/7. if i want to make a plane reservation at the clock in the morning or buy a book at 11 p.m. or order some of your item at 6 a.m. i can do that and the same kind of thing is what people want in terms of their political information. there was a fairly recent you study -- pew study that showed huge numbers of people doubled in the last election cycle over the previous cycle. went on line to get political information the last cycle and i think it was something like 50 million people and we estimate that based on those numbers and of course 25 million did and just go to get information they stayed to create information. mabey dave wrote a blog post or maybe they left a comment or
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maybe they sent electronic message to the members of congress or to an agency or department. 25 million people do this kind of thing? this is a huge mass of interested people and so our theory is to put this information into their hands and invite them to collaborate and they will. >> speaking of, this congress doing putting information on line? >> well it is maybe a lot more challenging than the executive but we have had to projects, the above on going. one is the open house project and the other is open senate project which has been a collaborative online effort of may be somewhere between five to 700 people to identify easy way is for the house and senate to use technology to come to the 21st century to put more information and make it available. we have had great activity both in the house by the speaker nancy pelosi and john boehner,
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minority leader and by senator reid, the majority leader in the senate as well to this project we've delivered the house results some time ago and have been working through the rules committee to get some of these ideas enacted. they are easy things. the senate is more difficult for example of our advocacy project is to push forward a piece of legislation called s 482 which would require the senate to funnel their campaign finance reports electronically the house has done it for years. there is no reason for the senate not to fly all the campaign finance reports electronically. they keep them on the computers and print them out and hand them to the federal election commission that spends a quarter of a million dollars every year making mistakes and of course slowing down the process. i wasn't born yesterday. i know that slowing down of the
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process is what they want and so we have put a lot of pressure and think congress will -- the senate will pass this as 482 and we have mounted a major campaign to try to get and i think they have to get used to it but there's lots of members who do understand the change of technology and how it enhances their ability to communicate. >> car was going to follow-up to you see more of these members making these moves to talk about their own actions and contributions in their own associations via technology on an individual basis? >> absolutely. more and more members are going on twitter which is the most direct way to communicate with people get more of them are using video cameras and more of them are getting sophisticated manner activity on their senate and house websites and so there is a growing appreciation for this and it's not all just the
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younger members coming in. we see some of the older members or members of longstanding maybe the polite way to put eight who began to understand that this will increase the constituencies trust in what they are doing. there's some number of members of congress to post their official calendars online so you can see who they meet with if seven or eight of them today but we think this is an idea members seek will increase trust so on and a member of conagra's i have nothing to hide. you can see i meet with lobbyists on this issue and that and people i agree with and dealt and how much time i spent in committee meetings, how much time i spent meeting with my staff etc. so disclosing calibers is another thing we see members starting to do. >> ellen miller you've been in business three years with the sunlight foundation. how is the technology already changed and what is the next generation of technology? >> i don't think anybody can predict what is next but i would
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have to say at least once a day if not twice a day someone would send to me a new piece of technology that they will say can we use this in some way so there is a program called gapminder. you can click once you create it and see a swell of information you might put on this. we use it to create a chart of real-estate, finance insurance and real estate contribution to democrats and republicans over a ten or 15 year period and literally with the click of a button in less than 15 seconds you understand the growth of these campaign contributions which may or may not have led or had an impact on members of congress and the current financial scandal so it's a way of illustrating or, you know, we
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looked at the birthmarks, a project we have. we used to cool the earth, new technology in the last couple of years and we put earmarks on top of google earth members can out of congress and said what do you mean you can fly over the earmarks in my district, and indeed, you could. it is a visualization that is a tool that enables people to understand smile a little bit. but fundamentally understand what's going on. they are examples of this day after day of the creative talent on line in terms of the technology as it appears to be limitless and so we see these all the time and think how can we use this? >> how would you gauge success for the sunlight foundation?
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>> to base. first and foremost we want to see government adaptation, the notion it is their responsibility to provide government information for its citizens. so in a sense we think of as a success. was on a website we found it, literally the exact code. the shifting of responsibility to government to provide this information is absolutely a measure of success. and then second, citizen use of disinformation. so we want to see more and more citizens coming to the open congress or or other websites we create and to that and we have done a number of projects like apps durham iraq asking citizens to create applications on top of data to demonstrate usefulness. >> ellen miller has been the

The Communicators
CSPAN August 17, 2009 8:00pm-8:30pm EDT

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